Location: Hangzhou, China
Social Handle: @竹顶针/@bamboo_thimble
Followers: 800K (Weibo at time of suspension)
Zhudingzhen (竹顶针, an alias) became famous on Weibo, China’s microblogging platform, for his sarcastic persona and gay rights advocacy. After using his perch to call out censorship against the LGBTQI community and the government’s ineffective response to the 2018 East China flood, his account was removed by Weibo in late 2018.
After Weibo announced its ban on homosexual content in April 2018, you started an #IAmGay hashtag, which was viewed half a billion times in 72 hours. When you first posted that, what were you thinking?
I was out singing karaoke with my colleagues when Weibo announced its decision to censor content related to homosexuality. So, I thought to myself: what could be more powerful than getting banned on Weibo? By the time karaoke ended about three hours later, it was already trending.
How many times has your Weibo account been removed?
A lot of times — maybe six or seven.
When there is a strong chance your post will be censored by the government, Weibo will usually take down the content or suspend you for a short period to avoid being noticed by state moderators. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) has the right to go directly into Weibo’s moderation system and look for sensitive content. If the CAC spots something, Weibo has no power to safeguard the offending user’s account.
How did you like being internet famous?
As my following grew, I went through a phase of adjustment. At the end of my social media journey, I was a little crazy, because I was obsessed with participating in whatever discussion was trending. And when you’re being watched, you start to act differently.
Why did you eventually quit Weibo?
I didn’t quit Weibo. I still use it every day; it’s just that I can’t post anything. I’m still using my old account. But it’s different. I used to feel like I was out having fun at a big party. Now, it feels more like I’m the only person at the party who doesn’t drink.
How has your personal life changed since you stopped being an influencer?
When you’re onstage, you can’t really see anything — you’re too aware of the fact that you’re in the middle of everything. You always feel like you’re being watched, admired, or mocked. But when you’re not getting any attention, things start to go back to normal.
Interview by Zeyi Yang
Location: New York, NY
Social Handle: @hadyouatsalaam
Followers: 82K (Instagram)
Shahd Khidir is a Sudanese beauty and fashion influencer who turned to activism after the massive police crackdowns on protesters during the 2018 Sudanese revolution. She started the viral #BlueForSudan campaign, to raise awareness about the situation in the country and the death of 26-year-old Mohamed Mattar, who was killed by the country’s security forces.
How did you start out in the beauty influencer industry?
I had always been interested in style, and when I started doing live videos on Facebook, I would receive an overwhelming number of questions from women about things like foundation and the fundamentals of makeup. They’d ask me: “How do I stop my foundation from turning gray on me?” or “How do I stop my makeup from getting oily throughout the day?” or “What is the best foundation for women of color?”
I’m Black, I’m plus sized, and I wear a hijab. As I started getting more active on social media, I began to get supportive notes from people. Stuff like, “I’m really glad that somebody who looks like me is out there, posting photos.”
What prompted you to share your first viral political posts for #BlueForSudan?
I’m originally from Sudan. On June 3, 2019, in the midst of the revolution, the Khartoum massacre took place, and I lost a friend.
At the time, I had about 30,000 followers. So, I wrote a post that said: “Listen, my friend was murdered. There’s a revolution. There is a complete media blackout. And I want you to learn about these things. If you want to, and if you can, help in some way.” That post went viral, it reached 8 million people. I apologized to brands and said, “I know that I’m a beauty influencer; I know this is really crazy to discuss. But I can’t be silent anymore.”
Some were understanding, others were not. Some followers told me that they didn’t follow me for political content. But others said that this was why they were going to follow me.
Have you ever had your account suspended or experienced harassment?
I haven’t been suspended. I have not been reported. Hamdulillah. But online and offline harassment is nonstop. People are always objectifying and judging me.
Instagram introduced a filter years ago that lets you censor certain words in your comments section. I still use it for “fat,” “cow,” “pig,” and other insulting terms used to fat-shame.
You live in one of the epicenters of the pandemic. How has Covid-19 impacted your work as an influencer?
A lot of people who I was working with were furloughed. Campaigns were canceled. Many brands went out of business, which also affects me. Some still want to partner, even though they no longer have the budget to work with me. It has affected my work significantly.
What social media beauty campaigns are you currently working on?
I’m now with the American beauty chain Ulta. It’s a big deal for a Muslim woman to represent such a big beauty retailer. I’m going to be doing a hair campaign with my hijab on. I also did something for the Nike Pro hijab. I’m not saying that I’m a perfect Muslim or anything, but I am proud of the work that I do.
Interview by Elia El Habre
Location: São Paulo, Brazil
Social Handle: @Afros e Afins
Followers: 672K (YouTube)
Nátaly Neri is an Afro-Brazilian social media influencer who uses YouTube and Instagram to facilitate discussions on race, feminism, and LGBTQI activism. Since 2015, Neri has published viral videos that analyze complex social issues, including the war on drugs, the #NotHim movement against President Jair Bolsonaro, and Blackness in Brazil.
What was the moment you realized you were a social media influencer?
When I got to college, I got involved in discussions about race, which I then decided to move online. Because of its racist and colonialist history, Brazil is predominantly a mixed-raced country, and as a Black, mixed-race person, I wanted to engage a Brazilian audience on these issues.
As my videos circulated, I would meet people on the street, who would say: “I used to call myself mixed-race [pardo] or a lighter-skinned Black person [moreno], but now I say I’m Black, because of you.” That was how I realized my content was reaching a lot of people and changing their point of view. It made me very happy but a little afraid as well.
I worried that people would understand my experience to be the only one. I didn’t want people to think that what I was saying was the only way to self-reflect.
Instead, I hoped people would use these discussions about race to think about their lives. That they would take my views into consideration, but also those of other content creators and Black intellectuals, and seek out additional literature in order to better understand themselves.
What’s your favorite platform for posting political content?
Mainly YouTube, because platforms like Twitter and Instagram are too ephemeral. On YouTube, I am able to upload longer, more complex content. It is a safe space for me, even though it is the most expensive, it requires more production work, and it can be difficult to upload content. It lets me convey my full message and also easily link to previous videos I’ve made.
Have you ever had your accounts suspended?
Not suspended exactly, that’s not how it works on YouTube. Their punishment is demonetization, which means the video can’t earn ad revenue. My videos about racial issues were frequently classified as “not family-friendly” and demonetized. I tried to explain to the people at YouTube that we were not posting racist comments but rather promoting education about race.
In response, YouTube told me that their algorithms could not differentiate educational content from racist content. But they also said that the more we posted about racism, the more the algorithms would be able to grasp the difference. Nowadays, my content about race and racism is not affected by this problem, but my LGBTQI content is. Whenever I mention homophobia, my account gets demonetized.
Have you ever faced harassment online because of the political work you do?
When I was posting about now-President Jair Bolsonaro during the election period, the attacks never stopped. I still receive phishing emails, and people try to hack my accounts. With every email I receive, I have to be careful to make sure I’m not clicking on anything suspicious. I have to keep my accounts, my mental health, and my audiences protected from racist and violent third parties.
To what extent do you consider being an influencer part of your work as an activist?
I see myself as an activist, but also a content creator, and these are not synonymous. I choose to be strategic and use content creation to amplify my activism. My lifestyle content is also political, in a subtle way, and it attracts people who were not searching for politics. I feel like I’m constantly trying to bridge the gap between the two worlds.
Interview by Priscila Bellini
Thinzar Shunlei Yi
Location: Yangon, Myanmar
Social handle: @thinzashunleiyi (Twitter)
Thinzar Shunlei Yi is a democracy and free-speech activist who has been hailed as an influential female voice in Myanmar. For her role in organizing public protests and advocating freedom of assembly, she has been called to court more than 60 times in the past two years.
How did you first become involved in activism?
I was a high school teacher for disadvantaged kids who were disabled and HIV-positive. Many of them had been displaced by the civil war. I realized that if I could change things at a policy level, I’d be able to make a faster and bigger social impact. In Myanmar, people are trained to be afraid of politics and mobilizing in public. I thought it was really important for someone like me, a young woman from the majority ethnic group, to normalize street politics with the younger generation.
Have you experienced any backlash because of your advocacy?
When I used to advocate for youth policy, people cheered me on, and I received awards. But when I started speaking out against the current leadership and about the Kachin Civil War and discrimination against Muslim minorities, I faced a lot of opposition. Not just from pro-military groups, but from pro-nationalist, pro-government, and pro-ruling-party groups too.
Have you ever had any posts censored or had any of your social media accounts suspended?
I’ve never been hacked or suspended. But still, I don’t feel safe. Many of the pictures I’ve posted in public have been misused. Critics have stolen my pictures, defaced my message, and tried to shape a narrative against me. They’ve used pictures I’ve taken with Muslim friends and circulated those images for their purposes.
In Myanmar, the law is not strong enough to protect digital spaces, so things can get really out of control.
How has the pandemic impacted the work you do as an activist?
There’s been a lot of economic pressure and mental stress, especially since the government has imposed restrictions on our freedom of movement. You can go to a bar, but you can’t gather for a public protest. The pressure on me is also getting worse. Military intelligence officials asked my father, a military official, to tell me not to post anything.
Interview by Meaghan Tobin
Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina
Social handle: @ofefernandez
Followers: 503K (Instagram)
Ofelia Fernández is a 20-year-old activist who became a national voice during the 2018 Green Tide movement to legalize abortion in Argentina. After her election to the Buenos Aires legislature last year, she became the youngest lawmaker in Latin America and continues to use her social media accounts to fight sexism and online trolling.
Why did you decide to start building a social media following?
It started very naturally. When I reached 5,000 followers, it was very strange for me. That was in 2017. I now have half a million followers, and the truth is it has never stopped being surprising. To many people, I represent a voice that was lacking in politics — the possibility of a different future.
Do you think social media is important to your political work?
With almost everything I do in the legislature, the first thing I think about is how I’m communicating my ideas to the world. I manage my own social media, which doesn’t happen very often in politics. I do this in order to be as transparent as I was back when I was a student activist, and I didn’t have as many followers.
When did you realize you had become an influencer?
I was part of a movement that some journalists called the Revolution of the Daughters, which was unified around the fight for abortion rights. More than a million women took to the streets and were willing to stay until abortion was legalized.
In 2018, through my work with this movement, I began to realize that I was gaining more followers and that I had a large platform. I started getting invited to give talks around the country.
What is your preferred social media platform?
I like Instagram because of its audiovisual format. It allows me to explain and present things in detail and do streams or stories for things that are more trivial. There’s a little bit of everything. I also use Twitter, but it’s more violent and filled with hatred, so I’m less comfortable there.
Do you ever encounter trolls and online abuse on these platforms?
Anybody online now has to deal with trolls and attacks, and especially women and young people. I think that the pushback I’ve gotten, the efforts to suppress my voice, have been intended to discourage other women from speaking out — to make any woman thinking about speaking out know that she’ll have to deal with thousands and thousands of accounts attacking her, and often attacking her body rather than her ideas.
Interview by Leo Schwartz
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi
Location: Lagos, Nigeria
Social handle: @AyodejiOsowobi
Followers: 26.8K (Twitter)
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi is the founder of Stand to End Rape, a nonprofit that advocates for an end to sexual violence against women in Nigeria. She was on the TIME 100 Next list in 2019, and was named the Commonwealth Young Person that same year.
How has your social media use changed over the years?
I got on Twitter in 2010, but I didn’t really use it — I’d just tweet “Jesus be my savior” once a month. What actually brought me to where I am now was leaving social media and returning to it with a mission. Rape has always been an unpopular topic to talk about. Even survivors have trouble discussing their experiences online. I wanted to change that, and social media was a huge tool for my advocacy. I brought my work there and grew my following.
How does your advocacy on these platforms impact your real-life work?
All the things you see us do online actually translate to what we do offline. For example, a person in a rural community may not know about Stand to End Rape, but if someone online who is aware of the campaign hears that their neighbor’s daughter has been raped, they immediately know who to contact.
What is your preferred social media platform?
I think Twitter is the best for educating people. For instance, when I talk about how women experience violence at the hands of men, I can easily provide facts and data. I’m interested in giving people bits and pieces of critical information and watching it change their attitudes. I’d say the hashtag has been one of the most useful elements of Twitter. It helps us put information in people’s faces and galvanize action.
What social media campaign are you most proud of?
Our Sexual Harassment Bill campaign actually started as an offline petition, but we decided to bring it online so we could more effectively shame Nigerian legislators into action. Once we got students interested, they started asking questions like, “Why haven’t you passed this bill?” It’s now passed its third senate hearing.
Interview by Aanu Adeoye
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Social Handle: @Netiwitntw
Followers: 138K (Facebook)
Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal (เนติวิทย์ โชติภัทร์ไพศาล) is a 23-year-old student activist known for protesting Thailand’s authoritarian military government. He is the author of several books and translates important activist literature into Thai.
What inspired you to develop a social media following?
When I was a high school student near Bangkok, speaking out was hard, due to the authoritarian nature of teachers and even other students. Saying something on Facebook or Twitter was the only way to escape. That was how I recognized that social media was a powerful way to communicate to others what was going on here.
If I am famous because of this, I have a responsibility to use my influence. These days, many young people are speaking up, both in their schools and on social media, so there’s less of a burden on me.
Is there a moment when you knew you had broken to being an influencer?
I once posted that when we question school authorities, our teachers never have an answer and just say: it is “Thainess.” I want to end the excuses of Thainess. Then, one day, I saw I had received a lot of messages on Facebook. First, I didn’t realize what was happening, but later I learned that my post had been circulating on conservative social media accounts! Their headline said that I wanted to abolish Thainess, and people thought I wanted to destroy the Thai culture, which mistook my messages.
Which social media platform do you choose to engage with followers on political issues?
I mostly use Twitter. I used to be on Facebook a lot, but Twitter has more young people. Also, in Thailand, it’s good for young people to have anonymity to protect them from their family and the state. Despite its many flaws, Twitter is anonymous, so many people feel free to comment there, and the hashtag feature makes it easy for them to participate in campaigns.
What is a social media campaign or post you are particularly proud of?
Recently, I created a hashtag #saveศาลเจ้าแม่ทับทิม (#savetheshrine) when I heard that my university planned to demolish a hundred-year-old shrine to build a condominium. I campaigned on Twitter, and my posts were retweeted more than 400,000 times. We also held a demonstration. Finally, we were able to delay the demolition of this cultural heritage site. It’s been two months, and we still have a lot of work to do.
Is there a social media campaign or post that you regret?
When young people were abused in schools, and they’d send the information to me, I used to share it immediately. Sometimes, it would help the schools be publicly shamed, but it would also hurt students in the process. It’s not very hard for schools to know who it is. I can’t deny my responsibility, and I always feel sorry that it happens.
What do you think is your influence on your followers outside Thailand?
When I see something going wrong in another country, I feel the responsibility to communicate with the Thai people so that they can learn about it and maybe help. That’s why I became involved in Uyghur, Tibetan, and Hong Kong activism, and how I came to know so many people who campaign for these causes.
Interview by Zeyi Yang
Location: Nairobi, Kenya
Social Handle: @lizwathuti
Followers: 13.7K (Twitter)
Elizabeth Wathuti is a 24-year-old environmentalist and climate activist who founded the Green Generation Initiative, an organization that has encouraged 20,000 Kenyan students to embrace nature. Wathuti has planted over 30,000 trees and has joined the Fridays for Future strikes in Kenya.
How did you become involved in climate activism?
I planted my first tree when I was seven. As I grew up, I found that nurturing young people and connecting them to the natural world helps them develop a love for, and appreciation of, nature. I believe that you protect what you love.
I would also tell my grandmum that I wanted to meet Wangari Maathai, the iconic Kenyan environmentalist, and she would tell me to study just like Maathai. Maathai was the first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize as an environmentalist. So that was part of my driving force.
What inspired you to build a social media following?
In the climate and environment space, when you build a network and have an online community, you can learn from what other people are doing and see how different initiatives work together. You can pick up key lessons and best practices from other countries, other cities, and other inspiring young people.
Is there a moment that you’re particularly proud of, in which you used social media for your activism?
Earlier this year, there was a campaign to save Uhuru Park, one of the biggest parks in Nairobi. We launched the #HandsOffUhuruPark campaign, and after a day, the government responded on Twitter, saying that due to public uproar, they were going to redesign the Nairobi Expressway so the road didn’t touch Uhuru Park.
How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Like a lot of people, we cannot have physical meetings. We cannot hold events. But we can still make our voices heard through online platforms.
What has your messaging been on social platforms during this time?
Leaders of some nations are acting like we need to put all other issues on pause because of Covid-19. We want to remind people that we’re still in a climate crisis, and we should be treating all the crises the same. If we press the pause button, the people who are most vulnerable to these challenges will be affected.
Interview by Devi Lockwood